You Can’t Handle the Truth

One thing that Republicans and Democrats have in common is a parallel disbelief over how the other side’s politicians get away with telling so many fibs, distortions, and outright lies.

But one reason politicians tell tales is that their supporters will usually believe whatever they want to hear — even if what they hear turns out to be false.

The Washington Post does a great job summarizing research showing that people tend to say “thanks, but no thanks” to the truth when it corrects a fib that meshes with what they already believe.

More interestingly, sometimes a factual correction only serves to reinforce misinformed beliefs, according to a study by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler.

That’s something to keep in mind as the presidential campaign races through its final 40 days.

(Hat tip: The Monkey Cage)


Call me a cynic but I don not think the problem is that politicians are lying to the people. The problem is that the people want to be lied to. I think that the presidential primaries provide ample proof of this. In that process each party expects their politicians to tell them what they want to hear, and generally the politicians oblige. In politics admitting that your policy has any downside or that there is any validity to another point of view does not get votes. A good example of this is social security. The campaign of any candidate who spoke candidly about the problems would be DOA.

The tendency to believe what you want to hear is not limited to any ideology. It afflicts both left and right, religious and non-religious, rich and poor, educated and un-educated. In fact it seems to me that many of those who think themselves above such simple mindedness turn out to have the least open minds. One thing that I have noticed in myself is that trying to discern the lies that I am inclined to believe has helped me to sort out the political lies shoveled out by both parties.


Matt V

While no political party has a lock on the truth, liberals seem to hold facts and evidence-based decision making in somewhat higher regard than conservatives. Look at the vigor with which conservatives cling to trickle-down economics and blanket deregulation, not because of the evidence for their efficacy, but often in spite of it.


Phooey! The sources that are used to cite lies, half-truths are suspect: Slate, USAToday, and the Post....? Objective? Ha!


Harry (Something's Gotta Give):

"I have never lied to you, I have always told you some version of the truth."

Sums it up for me.



"distortions to outright lies in order to get Obama elected." - Sorry Robert, but this is not the RNC talking-points club. I am not sure if you mean the "lies" where they dared to expose McCain's lies, or the "lies" where they dared to expose Palin's lies, or the "lies" where they just quoted either one of them. It seems that both McCain and Palin are working to get Obama elected - they do not need the media.

Maybe your definition of "lies" is different, but usually it means not true and especially not factual. For example, when Palin says over and over that she sold the state plane on Ebay and made a profit, that runs counter to the (pesky) facts which say she ended up selling it at a loss through a broker.

"The smear campaign against Sarah Palin has also been unbelievable" - as in not believable? I assume you mean the "smears" where they pointed out that she lied about the plane, the bridge, earmarks, the gas pipeline, and just about everything else. See, normally, people use the word "smear" when they mean telling untruths rather than when exposing them.



Politics is a full-contact sport, and the way you score points is by building yourself up and tearing your opponent down.

One way to do that is to point out flaws, inaccuracies and contradictions in your opponents statements and behavior, while leaving out any mention of your own.

Obama and Biden, for example, like to talk about Palin's flip-flop on the Bridge to Nowhere, but fail to mention that they both voted in favor of the earmark -- twice.

Campaigns are about slogans and soundbites, but truth is usually more nuanced than that.

Robert L.

Everyone expects politicians to lie. The defining issue of this campaign is the main stream media crossing over from distortions to outright lies in order to get Obama elected. The smear campaign against Sarah Palin has also been unbelievable.

If people refuse to believe The New York Time's "truth," that's a good thing.


@Paul K: You are right. If we are trying to generalize who is or is not susceptible to buying into partisan mythologies, doing it by party is the wrong way. Education levels may have a better correlation.

I'd actually bet that it is based on complex social factors. These mythologies thrive in areas where everyone thinks alike, and thus people can easily close themselves to other points of view without fear of challenge. So a primary cause may be uniformity of political leaning in a given locale.


I was discussing this research with a friend, who rightly pointed out that you need to separate social conservatives (who tend to be "faith based" in their beliefs - do not want or need facts) vs. purely fiscal conservatives (who in many cases, but not all, are more intellectual in their beliefs). It is likely that the numbers for the faith based ones skew even harder in the sense that refutations reinforce misinformation. The more intellectual ones likely do react to refutations. The same will be true of liberals - some are "knee jerk" liberals and many are intellectual.

Note that one factor in refutations not having the intended effect: once you remind people of something they do not in general like, they are more likely to hold onto the strong dislike. For example, if you remind a Democrat of Guantanamo with facts or lies, many will have a more negative opinion either way, so refuting the lie will not change that. This has been the basis of many political ads that are telling the truth - focus on someone's strong dislikes by reminding them.



@#2: I agree, but mostly because conservatism has so many creationists, which trumps any liberal self-reinforcing myth seven times sideways.

But there are still a rich field of liberal confirmation biases, like the tendency to discount any research that shows personal outcomes to be dependent on genetics. Liberals more than conservatives really want everyone to be created equal.

The first study cited in the post seems so obvious to hardly be worth mentioning. Anybody who has spent 90 seconds talking to a devoted partisan should know it to be true. The second study, on factual correction reinforcing prior beliefs, is more interesting.


Wouldn't it be funny if people fought misinformation with misinformation?

We found the Weapons of Mass Destruction, but they turned out to be baking flour. We must fight in Iraq because they attacked Katrina and threaten us with Global Warming. These examples are inane, but this general type of counterpoint may be more effective. When confronted by what one recognizes to be a lie, would people loosen their dogma: The sky is red. No it's green! Hmm, maybe it's blue?

In many ways I feel that talking people down from strong points of view is similar to talking down a suicide jumper. You need to first make them feel you are on their side and then slowing talk them down. That or just totally confuse them.


yeah, right

next you're going to try to convince me that FDR didn't go on television immediately after the stock market crash of 1929


Matt V. (#2), if that was satire, it was absolutely brilliant. Bravo.


Good point Mango. At the risk of upsetting people, Churches by nature are a place people go to not be challenged with new information, but to reinforce their own belief (why they belong). Further, strongly orthodox/fundamentalists of any religion tend to teach their following to resist and fight the words of outsiders, and so the response is to reinforce the beliefs. This method has been used by evangelicals to teach creationism as fact, by radical muslims to teach anti-western mores, and by many religions to create an us vs. them mentality (sense of belonging on the one hand, tendency to disbelieve non-members on the other). Powerful stuff that.


Our political parties are made up of . . . people. People of all walks of life, and both the major

political parties are prone to do whatever it takes to get their person elected.

This hyperbole (to be polite) occurs even in our daily lives.

Neither party has a lock on morality, honesty or the best interests of our population above their own petty political BS.

Paul K

Clearly McCain and Palin did not need to read this research to know it is true. The fact that they continue to outright lie about Palin's record on everything from selling the plane to the bridge to nowhere shows that it must work. I think there is also the belief that if you repeat a lie often enough (no matter how much it is shown to be a lie), people start to remember it as fact. Cheney and Bush used this with Iraq lies to great effect (and its effect is still felt as many people still think they are true). Sigh.

Tracy M.

I think that ALL OF US are susesptible to misinformation, even though we would like to believe that it is OTHERS who are gullible. It is kind of like thinking that advertising doesn't affect MY purchases but it has an influence on most EVERYBODY ELSE.

Paul K

Sorry jblog (18), but "but fail to mention that they both voted in favor of the earmark — twice" is very misleading. You seem to forget that the reason that earmarks are so nasty is that they are snuck into bills that are otherwise valid. If there was an appropriations bill for that bridge, no one would have voted for it but Ted and Don. Since it was part of larger bills that were important, most were stuck with it. This is the reason it is a full contact sport. Remember the Republicans spouting off about Democrats not supporting troops when they would not sign an appropriations bill (pre 2006)? The Democrats rightly pointed out the unbelievable pork loaded into that bill (more cost than the troop part), but the public only heard about troops not being supported. This is the real truth - no nuances.


This is a pretty well known psychological effect known as commitment and consistency. Psychologically, people prefer to stay consistent with previous beliefs rather than change them to a more correct belief. Many people even do it consciously.


If a person was accused of wrongdoing but then exonerated, I can see how an observer still might have slight doubts that exoneration was accurate. Or if you see a newsflash that your beef is tainted and will kill you, and then a correction comes and says it was actually a smaller subset of beef and yours is fine, you might still worry. Seems reasonable and even logical.

But to have a defendant exonerated, and that exoneration makes you more likely to believe they are guilty... that's just nuts. Some sort of cognitive disorder. I don't know.

Now I could understand the sentiment if the sources were the National Review or Daily Kos, and so you might tend to believe that the opposite of what they say is true. But certainly you wouldn't think that about a source that should be friendly or neutral to your preference...